By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer
March Madness is behind us now, and the NCAA is getting ready for a new set of bracket busters with the start of the NCAA volleyball national championship tournament. Baylor, fresh off a 19-6 regular season, comes into the tournament as the No. 12 overall seed.
“We are definitely a top 16 team,” middle blocker Preslie Anderson said. “So it’s nice to earn that respect despite our last match loss, and even given that, I feel like it’s so exciting to see how we respond and that the response gets to be in our first match of the tournament.”
That position gives Baylor a first round bye, meaning they get a free pass to the second round, where they will once again face No. 20 Pepperdine. Head coach Ryan McGuyre knows how talented his team is, but also how tough it was for the selection committee to accurately rank teams in an unusual season.
“The committee has no criteria to go off of, RPI and everything else,” McGuyre said. “I feel it’s accurate. I think one through 16 are all really, really good, and we didn’t have much cross-play [among the top seeds]. It’s hard to know.”
Familiar faces like Texas, Texas State, Pepperdine, Rice and Wisconsin have all made their way into the 2021 bracket, which is short a few teams this year due to COVID-19 regulations. Normally, the tournament features a full field of 64 teams, but will only host 48 this year in an effort to try and mitigate the spread of the virus. In a season full of changes and uncertainties, Baylor continues to adjust.
“It’s such a blessing to get ranked and to have a bye and to get to play some high-level teams in the tournament,” outside hitter Yossiana Pressley said.
At times this season the Bears have struggled to play up to their fullest potential, but at their peak, they can hang with anybody in the country. For that to happen, they’ll have to make some adjustments.
“Just getting back to what it means to play Baylor volleyball,” Anderson said. “We always say that there’s only one way to play, and that’s all out, full effort, communication, very disciplined, very trained. We use that word in our gym a lot, ‘trained volleyball.’ So making sure that when we get to the tournament, we’re applying all the training we’ve worked up for.”
Baylor will also go into the tournament without one of the most important players from the 2019 final four run, opposite hitter Marieke van der Mark. Van der Mark left the regular season match against Texas State with an injury and will miss the entirety of the tournament. In her absence, KJ Johnson has joined the starting lineup and has performed admirably, setting multiple career highs in her increased time on the floor. Likewise, freshman Cassie Davis has seen the court more and has been productive. Players like Johnson and Davis will need to be on their ‘A-game’ if Baylor wants to replicate their 2019 success in 2021.
Another point of emphasis for Baylor is its experience as a team. The Bears have been near the top for a while now, and it shows in their poise and late-game execution. In the tournament, experience wins games, and McGuyre is hoping Baylor can parlay their large number of seasoned veterans into a deep tourney run.
“The experience does help,” McGuyre said. “The idea that every ball matters, and the hope is that they’re not adjusting to the atmosphere because it’s not their first time, but something they’re experienced with. I think traveling, having that routine, being able to sleep well on the road, taking care of your body, do your [scouting] and show up on the court ready to play is key.”
Baylor will open their tournament competition on Friday at 11 a.m. in Omaha, Neb.